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Q & A with Geert Lovink

Presently holed up at the Amsterdam School of Applied Sciences, 7,000 miles from Silicon Valley, tech critic Geert Lovink has held it down in different forms of European bohemia since the eighties, asking, over a series of five books: How can we use technology to actually make the world a better place? How can software be designed to redistribute wealth? Can technology be re-programmed to ensure privacy, and not facilitate data mining?

Lovink’s most recent book, Social Media Abyss: Critical Internet Cultures and the Force of Negation, considers the place of social media in our daily lives. Expanding on critiques of Web 2.0 (for example, notions that social media commodifies our sociability, making users the product that businesses sell to advertisers), Lovink ponders what “social reality” looks like in the digital age, who owns that reality, and whether it has the potential to make change. If we take Lovink’s ideas to heart, technology might actually help free people from the disastrous Silicon Valley logic of endless growth.—Will Meyer

Will Meyer: I want to start by talking about your thesis: “Tomorrow’s challenge will not be the Internet’s omnipresence, but its invisibility.” Can you elaborate on this?

Geert Lovink: Controversy about the internet seems to be the exception; what’s normal is its invisibility, and the routine, repetition, smoothness of the interfaces, and, of course, the addictive nature of it. We’re sometimes woken up by social media scandals and disruptions, which are political and social in nature, but the technology part is generally simply taken for granted. That’s why I make the comparison to utilities. We only notice the electricity when it doesn’t work. For young people, social media is integrated into their everyday lives. It is just part of life, like clothing or going to school. Or television, for that matter, when I grew up.

W.M.: You say that the “New Media” label “disappeared because the utopia of its promoters did not materialize.” What was this utopia, and why didn’t it materialize?

G.L.: I’m from a generation that grew up with the question: “What is the potentiality? What is the ‘newness?’ What can we do with this stuff?” After all, the stuff that the computer is made of was, in principle, quite amazing. But a lot of values—like community—did not materialize.

All we can do in the current social media architectures is transmit news. But outside social media, communities do not merely generate news.

At the start the utopian element was the community aspect, the one that precisely fails in social media, because social media does not allow for real community building. Social media neither facilitates debate nor provides a group with organizational tools to grow into a movement. Communities need time, a certain autonomy and closeness. Social media does not permit that. And companies like Google and Facebook constantly undermine independent networking. They want the networking to be under their terms. Their goal is to make money out of the data the social interaction is generating.

What we also see now with the current tools is that the first phase of movement building is being undermined because it all happens out in the open under the paradigm of news production. Everything you say is rendered an ‘update’ or ‘status.’ All we can do in the current social media architectures is transmit news. But outside social media, communities do not merely generate news. They work on issues, people exchange arguments and materials, they get to know each other and then, out of a messy collection of local gatherings, something bigger emerges, the movement emerges after a series of events.

I am categorically against the logic of news. The definition of news has become so general that important news tends to disappear into the flow. We can’t distinguish anymore, because every event, no matter how big or small, passes by in the feed. Let’s organize our data in a different way and create a radical break from news altogether and see what happens.

W.M.: That makes sense. You spend a lot of time considering “outsiders”—“geeks,” “artists,” “hackers”—different bohemian figures in the book. You both pin hopes on their potential to create change (like alternatives to corporate platforms) and also lament how neoliberal austerity is pushing them towards the margins.

G.L.: Well we can only say that this withdrawal, this further marginalization of these figures that you just mentioned is only beginning. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, artists, geeks, and designers were the ones who were experimenting most, they were exploring cyberspace. There is very little room at the present moment to do that. Nowadays, time is spent on staying connected, manicuring an online presence. How can we build up new forms of underground in this environment? For that, we first need to unplug. Not because we’re against technology but because the current platforms are not serving our goals. The question is, “Will we have time, and, can we defend such ‘temporary autonomous zones’ in which these experiments happen over the course of time, without being bothered by ‘likes’? Can we define and defend this new form of underground?”

W.M.: As much as you’re excited about the potentials of social movement’s ability to effect change, you are quick to spell out the limitations of social movements that are dependent on social media. What are these limitations and how can they be overcome?

G.L.: Like I said, with social media, social movements can only focus on mobilization and on news, the spreading of news. But in fact, the key issue of social movements—and everyone who’s been involved will, I believe, agree—is the mystery of social uprising, the mystery of becoming a movement, the creation of resistance. Because the news is what happens at the end, the big secret is what happens before. That is the moment of organization. And social media doesn’t do anything at that level. I am very much in favor of using the computer for organizational tools, but these tools are for small groups, and that’s why we (The Institute of Network Cultures) have been developing this idea of the organized networks that are built on strong links and oppose social media for the simple fact that these platforms only exploit weak links. And they can only further spread the word to the friends of the friends of the friends. We all know this logic, but the hard work, the really decisive stuff, cannot happen in a weak link environment. No way.

W.M.: You consider content producers, and introduce a phrase, “Content Justice”; what is it and how do we get there?

G.L.: Content justice would be the direct relationship one develops with the reader or the listener, or the audience and should be something that is perceived (and nurtured) from day one. That’s what networks and social media can make possible.

But a problem is that there is no content justice outside of the content itself. If we start to say, well, we produced the content here, and then through some kind of old-school communication model of a black box, we push it through a channel, and in the end it reaches the user, then you’ve already lost. Because there are other artists of course who have another idea about it, who say, “Ah, well, you know, I give it away for free, let’s see if I will get anything back from whatever.” And, you know, that’s a luxury.

W.M.: Yeah, or privilege, is the word that comes to mind.

G.L.: The ‘economy of the free,’ as I call it in the book, is an amazing privilege, and it’s wonderful if you can afford it. But many of us simply can’t. One could say, “In the end this has to be done by society at large, and I as an individual artist, I cannot solve this issue myself.” If we argue like that we’ve already lost. If we want a peer-to-peer-economy we need to realize it, step by step, create networks, organize visibility, debate premises and pitfalls amongst ourselves and create a critical mass like that.

Demanding things of the big players is somewhat passive, I find.

But I believe in short-term experimentation, in which people start to rearrange and begin to really build the peer-to-peer economy from scratch. Because demanding things of the big players is somewhat passive, I find. What we really need are inspiring experiments that push towards a fundamental rearrangement of society. How can people make a living in a different way? And by jump-starting an economy off the grid and below the surface, I believe we can get the ball rolling. I also understand that in order to create true content justice, we need overall agreements that are all-encompassing, but getting to that point is a big task.

W.M.: You bring up Baffler contributor Evgeny Morozov and a specific quote of his about “solutionism.” Can you describe his idea about how tech fixes won’t fix political or social problems, and how it fits into your thinking?

G.L.: Solutionism is what has happened over the last couple of years in Silicon Valley. And the idea of Morozov is simple, and in that simplicity lies also his genius. Solutionism is a solution in search of a problem. There is a set of apps, and then you’ve gotta find the problems. The most well-known examples are Uber and AirBnB but also think of self-tracking apps. The specific trick of extracting value through technological solutions can be applied to any sector, to any part of social life—health, agriculture, logistics, the taxi sector, to the hotel and entertainment industries. They’ve integrated all sorts of measuring software in there, too. There’s very little ordinary people can do against this Silicon Valley logic. It implies active involvement of all its customers, it makes it hard to hard to sense, and also to resist, these invisible forms of value extraction. What you end up with is Kevin Kelly’s sense of the “inevitable”: Silicon Valley is our next nature and there is nothing we do about it.

W.M.: Let’s end with your work at The Institute of Network Cultures, and how it seeks to create alternatives to dominant platform capitalism and its appendages. Can you comment on Unlike Us, the Money Lab, and where you see promise in rewiring the power dynamics of the Internet?

G.L.: We’re a tiny organization inside a large Dutch polytech. What we do is create interdisciplinary networks to initiate conversations when a technology is in its early days. So we did that, for instance, with online video a few months after the launch of YouTube, and also had debates about Wikipedia; and nowadays it’s all about cryptocurrencies, bitcoin, and the blockchain.

There’s very little ordinary people can do against this Silicon Valley logic. It implies active involvement of all its customers.

We believe that critique should be built into the process of making. This may be a very European concept, that reflection is necessary and that it should be fully integrated in the making of these technologies. Us European critics are not pessimistic about the technology, we critique it. We critique certain premises that are built into the software. And we think that with different software, you will get different outcomes, just like with other social relationships between users, players, and content producers. As free software teaches us, machines can have a progressive agenda built in. Once these architectures close, as in the case of the Internet of things, smart phones and tablets, and start running in the background, that newness, that question of the potential, or “What can you do with it?” is no longer on the table.

If we want to achieve a redistribution of wealth, we cannot only say that the banks or the factories or whoever should give us better interest rates or a larger salary or something like that—no, we should also integrate that redistribution of wealth into the technology itself. And if we don’t want money to go to the one percent we should make sure Peter Thiel and people like him do not design the future architecture of the technologies that affect us all. Because the architecture of technology is indeed political, and it is up to us to make it work for us rather than against us.